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Jonestown Massacre: The Untold Truth 40 Years Later

Jonestown Massacre: The Untold Truth 40 Years Later
Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones (AP)

By    |   Sunday, 18 November 2018 05:22 PM

Forty years ago Sunday, 909 people committed suicide deep in the Guyanese jungle. The Jonestown carnage included only the second member of the House of Representatives assassinated, the greatest number of civilian deaths for any event in U.S. history until 9/11, and more African Americans murdered than at any dozen Ku Klux Klan terror acts combined.

The person who orchestrated this cataclysm earned the Los Angeles Herald’s “Humanitarian of the Year” designation less than three years earlier. A white man who enslaved, raped, and killed African Americans in Jonestown won a Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award in 1977. Religion in American Life named the reverend who distributed confiscated Bibles in Jonestown only after the commune’s bathrooms ran out of toilet paper as one of the nation’s 100 outstanding clergymen in 1976.

Those who drank Jim Jones’s Kool-Aid in Guyana did not drink it first.

“Don’t be this way,” Jones told his doomed flock on November 18, 1978. “Stop this hysterics. This is not the way for people who are Socialists or Communists to die. No way for us to die. We must die with some dignity.”

Walter Cronkite told CBS viewers “a power-hungry fascist” did this. The Associated Press called his explicitly atheist followers “religious zealots.” The New York Times, vaguely conceding Jones’s social activism, nevertheless dubbed him a preacher of “fundamentalist Christianity.”

All but seven communards present in Jonestown when the killings began died there. None did with any dignity. The bodies, after suffering convulsions, rotted quickly in bloated piles in the steamy South American jungle. Jones dispatched three Peoples Temple members to the Soviet embassy to deliver the group’s remaining riches. Four others escaped or evaded the suicide ritual. Everybody else died.

“We didn’t commit suicide,” Jones insisted to those poisoning themselves. “We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”

Jones borrowed that strange phrase, and stranger concept, from Black Panther leader Huey Newton, who, like Angela Davis, had addressed Peoples Temple over Jonestown’s loudspeakers. His 1973 book, Revolutionary Suicide, gave a name to the carnage. Since 1975, Jones had conducted suicide drills in which participants always emerged alive. In Jonestown, with gunmen and archers surrounding, nobody survived whom Jim Jones did not want to survive, save the four African American escapees.

Overworked, underfed, deprived of sleep, and barraged with propaganda through the public address system, the people of Peoples Temple endured an existence that sapped the will to live.

Vern Gosney, who survived three bullet wounds to the abdomen by a Temple gunman in a plane on the airstrip outside of Jonestown, explained in an interview for Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco that the members survived on a subsistence diet.

“I remember one time we had chicken-feet soup,” Gosney explained. “It’s chicken feet! Like, the feet and the leg—okay?”

Yulanda Crawford, who convinced Jones to let her leave long prior to Jonestown, regarded the loudspeaker harangues as the most demoralizing part of Jonestown. “He was constantly, constantly on the PA system and refusing to be quiet,” she recalled for a Cult City interview. “I just couldn’t stand it. It was ridiculous.”

That amplified hectoring continued until the end.

“I call on you to stop this now, if you have any respect at all,” Jones commanded to his dying flock. “Are we black, proud, and Socialist, or what are we? Now stop this nonsense.”

The objections came mainly in the crying of children. One adult, 60-year-old African American Christine Miller, courageously, and quite eloquently, objected. But all of the other voices on the death tape enthusiastically seconded Jim Jones’s call for revolutionary suicide.

“I’d just like to—to thank Dad for giving us life and also death,” one grateful young man spoke. “And I appreciate the fact of the way our children are going. Because, like Dad said, when they come in, what they’re gonna do to our children—they’re gonna massacre our children. And also the ones that they take captured, they’re gonna just let them grow up and be dummies like they want them to be and not grow up to be a socialist like the one and only Jim Jones.”

So Jones’s lackeys administered the Flavor-Aid, laced with less than a penny’s worth of cyanide per serving, to the children first. Adults, demoralized by the sight of their children dying, then took the poisonous elixir.

How could so many act so foolishly?

Powerful people legitimized Jim Jones to his poor followers.

San Francisco Mayor George Moscone appointed Jones to the city’s Housing Authority Commission, which he chaired the year prior to the cataclysm. Future San Francisco Mayor and Speaker of the California Assembly Willie Brown called Jones “a highly trusted brother in the struggle for liberation” in a letter urging Fidel Castro to honor the Peoples Temple leader with a state visit to Cuba.

San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk aggressively lobbied the president of the United States, the prime minister of Guyana, and other leaders by letter on Jones’s behalf. In one such missive to cabinet member Joseph Califano, he dishonestly described Jonestown as “a beautiful retirement community in Guyana, the type of which people of means would pay thousands of dollars to patronize.” He characterized the agricultural settlement, which could not even feed its own, as “alleviating the world food crisis.”

A “deeply moved” Jane Fonda, exuberant after attending a Temple service, wrote Jones in the summer of 1977 “to recommit myself to your congregation as an active and full participant—not only for myself but because I want my 2 children to have the experience.”

Playwright Donald Freed boasted after a 1978 trip to the commune, “Martin Luther King, I think, if he could see Jonestown, would recognize it as the next step in his agenda, and he would say, ‘One, two, three, many more Jonestowns.’”

Gunmen, a jungle, and despair surrounded the Jonestown damned. What’s their excuse?

Daniel J. Flynn, a senior editor at The American Spectator, is the author of Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco (ISI Books, 2018).


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Forty years ago Sunday, 909 people committed suicide deep in the Guyanese jungle. The Jonestown carnage included only the second member of the House of Representatives assassinated, the greatest number of civilian deaths for any event in U.S. history until 9/11, and more...
jim jones, peoples temple, jonestown
Sunday, 18 November 2018 05:22 PM
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